I have, for as long as I can remember, associated numbers and letters with colours. The letter p, for example, is lime green. So too is any word that begins with p (first letters usually colour the words to which they belong). The number five is a very bright orange. So is the letter z. My brother’s name is Zack, and I have always found him to be quite orange. Vowels, as well as the numbers zero and one, are either black, white or translucent. I think of vowels as bones and consonants as the meat that give them life. Seriously.
Until very recently, I assumed everyone else in the world thought this way too. I am not, to my knowledge, on acid. I do, however, have synesthesia, “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” (says Wikipedia). In English, this means that the part of my brain that perceives letters is somehow connected or working in unison with the part of my brain that perceives colour. One person in 23, or just over four per cent of the general population, is believed to have these involuntary experiences, which range from the more common—perceiving coloured letters and numbers (called grapheme synesthesia) to the more unique: tasting sound, personifying inanimate objects, smelling someone’s name. According to Dr. Noam Sagiv, a synesthesia expert at Brunel University in Britain, one in three synesthetes “attach gender and personality to letters and numbers. Digits may have moods or come to life in forms such as ‘four is gloomy,’ ‘seven is rambunctious.’ ” (Sagiv will speak at the American Synesthesia Association’s 10th annual conference, to be held for the first time in Toronto, at OCAD University early next month.)
When I first came across the idea of synesthesia (I saw the term in a friend’s psychology text book two years ago), I thought it was a kind of pseudo-scientific scam. I didn’t doubt my own colour sensations—I couldn’t if I tried—but I didn’t think it was logical, or necessary, to explain them scientifically. After all, weren’t they just metaphors? Some people think that cheese is sharp, or jazz is cool, so why was my inclination that five is orange fundamentally any different? Some people, I assumed, simply had their own private set of metaphors. It was poetically unique, maybe, but not neurologically so. It just didn’t feel different enough.
I wasn’t alone in my cynicism. Robin Kingsburgh, associate dean of the faculty of liberal arts and sciences at OCAD, says that until about 20 years ago the scientific community was equally skeptical. “Scientists thought people with synesthesia were being creative or metaphorical, or had somehow learned their associations in childhood,” she says. But the advent of two new diagnostic tools, functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, revealed to researchers that the brain function of synesthetes was significantly different from the norm. Once scientists had a “measurable effect,” says Kingsburgh—once they could see the cross-activation of sensory pathways in the brain—synesthesia went from pop science to cold hard data.
Cold hard data: now that’s a metaphor we all understand. But is it synesthesia? And that’s the kind of mockery we all understand. Maybe that’s the point. Skeptics like me look down on the study of things like synesthesia because they sound like so much flighty, arty b.s., like something a girl named Dawn from your post-modern feminist class might tell you about at a music festival. But it’s that very flightiness, that literary lack of “gravity,” the notion that you can study the neurological source of metaphor, that you can map poetic thought scientifically, that makes the idea so fascinating. Fascinating, and to me, scarier than any other scientific theory I’ve ever been forced to confront, because it is so personal. Synesthesia is science that is totally intimate.
It’s also science that is totally ignored. Ironically, in an era of rapid technological evolution and scientific exploration, synesthesia has gone virtually unnoticed. The logical basis of the uncanny is apparently of little concern to most of us, as are the majority of mysteries that turn inward these days instead of outward to the great beyond. We just brought an astronaut back from space, but we have no idea if he sees colours when he reads or if his number five is the same colour as yours. We’re obsessed with magnification and multiplication, with viral images reaching millions of people and the Starship Enterprise reaching the ends of the universe. But we contain multitudes ourselves, like synesthesia and its older sibling, metaphor. T.S. Eliot, in The Four Quartets, wrote: “The dance along the artery is figured in the drift of stars.” Metaphor is in our blood, and connects us to the cosmos. In less flighty terms, if you want to figure out the mysteries of the universe, answer this question for me first: What is the colour of a trumpet’s sound? (Ninety per cent of people asked this question answer “yellow” or “gold.”)
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Saturday, June 1, 2013